Scared New World

Insightful reflections here on how the emergence of artificial intelligence and related technologies could impact the already serious problem of digital poverty and in turn negatively affect the health and wellbeing of millions of people

By Dr. Brian Johnston

Senior Public Health Intelligence Manager

London, United Kingdom

Scared New World


Despite what people say about death and taxes, the only truly inevitable part of life is change.  Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and cloud computing  are all important drivers for change in our modern world and seem destined to radically transform our existence for years to come.

Increasingly, data and how it is processed and analysed, shapes our lives in ways that we could not have predicted even a few years ago. Our world is in a constant state of flux and shows a rate of change that would have been labelled as ”science fiction” even a decade ago.

Like most engines of change, AI and its associated technological advances have received a mixed reception and this state of affairs is likely to persist for the foreseeable future. Tangible benefits from AI within the health sector are emerging, from enhanced logistics, improved digital patient record handling and image scanning for cancers, to name but a few. However, these benefits must be judged against a complex constellation of challenges within data governance, privacy and the potential threats posed by systems which automate and improve processes previously controlled by human beings alone.

Against this background, digital poverty, where people lack digital skills, access to suitable devices, connection to the internet, or the ability to get online regularly, remains a major barrier to personal and economic growth, both at an individual and societal level.

A recent report on Digital Poverty in the UK  described it as a “pervasive issue,” and estimated that between 13 and 19 million people in the United Kingdom aged 16+ are in digital poverty.

Digital poverty exerts its greatest impact on the most deprived people in society, who struggle to feed their families and heat their homes in the current worldwide economic downturn. Where digital poverty exists, it permeates most aspects of a person’s existence, in this world so heavily dependent on technology. Communication, education, health, entertainment, work, and many other facets of modern life, are often navigated on-line through devices which require access to data collected, processed, and distributed via digital media.

Even in affluent countries, with well-developed digital infrastructures, digital poverty remains an important, persistent, and ongoing problem, blighting the lives and aspirations of millions of people.

Limiting or reducing access to computing and its associated benefits, can impact a person’s ability to fully realise their life potential in a variety of ways –  by influencing the type and quality of work that they do, their lifestyle choices, how and where they live, the decisions they make in life, the quality of their relationships and ultimately their physical and mental health and wellbeing. So digital poverty can be regarded as a cancer eating away at the fabric of society;  largely unseen and seldom discussed, but nonetheless causing serious damage under the surface.

In developing countries, where access to computing and its benefits is denied to large portions of the population, the negative impacts of digital poverty are keenly felt. Similarly, in a competitive world, where data and computing skills are becoming increasing prized, digital poverty seems set to create and perpetuate existing inequalities, at both an individual and national level. Older adults, women and poor people are already more likely to experience the negative impacts of digital poverty and these inequalities are highly likely to worsen in the years to come.

The digital revolution currently blossoming as a result of AI and related technologies, whilst it will create wealth, opportunities, and advances in various fields of human endeavour, will also exact heavy costs. The pace of change catalysed by AI, will create an environment where access to digital devices and skilled knowledge in their use, may become a prerequisite to achieving a decent standard of living in many sectors of employment. Those experiencing digital poverty will find it difficult to ride the waves of change created by AI – to use a surfing analogy; they lack the surf board as well as the skills and experience to use it, so will be condemned to stand on the side lines, watching others joyfully riding the waves of success. From this perspective, AI can be seen as a catalyst for change, which exacerbates the already serious problem of digital poverty and deepens the divide between the digital “haves” and “have-nots.”

Like the first industrial revolution of the 18th century, this digital revolution energised by AI, may also encourage people to migrate from the countryside into cities. Especially in developing countries, where Wi-fi connectivity in remote rural areas can be lacking and the digital infrastructure required to effectively use AI is patchy or unavailable, there may be a greater impetus to travel and settle in cities.

The perception that access to job opportunities linked to AI related industries, may lift people out of poverty in rural areas, may act as a strong magnet drawing them away from agricultural production towards urban environments. In countries, where climate change is already making the land more difficult to cultivate, through droughts, erosion of top soil and encroaching desertification, the exodus of people from the land for economic reasons, may worsen an already dire situation and place intolerable pressures on local food production and distribution.

Furthermore, the migration of people from rural to urban environments is likely to negatively impact the resources and infrastructure of many cities and place increasing stress on their health and social care systems. The creation of economically excluded populations, forced to live in poor quality, overcrowded housing, could overwhelm the existing services provided by many cities, through the spread of infectious diseases. This scenario would have serious implications for the health and wellbeing of millions of people across the globe.

However, targeted investment in programmes to increase digital access and literacy, could promote a culture of levelling up, where the effects of digital poverty are reduced and the negative changes created by the AI digital revolution mitigated. The changes brought about by AI are likely to be many and far reaching, so if we are to lessen the impact on our physical and mental health and wellbeing, we should be prepared to act swiftly and decisively, in ways that yield tangible benefits for everyone, including the digitally dispossessed.


By the same Author on PEAH

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